I wrote this speech for my debate class. My teacher is a really hard-core atheist, and there's a cluster of Jews in the front corner... this may clear up a few of the references.... Enjoy!
Our particular classroom is composed of basically three groups of people: Christians, Jews, and atheists. And Catholics are Christians - if you don't know that by now, you are in no place to criticize the subject of which I am about to delve into. My speech seeks to educate all of you on a subject that we all enjoy criticizing so much: the Bible. Atheists always joke about knowing more about the Bible than most Christians – while most of them have never actually read through one. And most Christians claim to understand the Bible – or they accept it as literally true – without ever having actually studied it. And by the way, there is a difference between reading and studying. Oh, and the Jews present also are lumped into this because it is your people’s history I am constantly referring to. The following benefits everyone in this room: for the Christians, you will learn about the Bible and the perspectives it was written from. For the Jews, this is a major component of the Israelites’ response to the Torah. And for the atheists (and the Jewish atheists which personally I don’t really get), I am simply fueling your arguments when you confront a Christian about their holy and perfect book. So you’re probably all waiting in eager anticipation for my topic, right? Well here it is: ancient near eastern cosmology.
Not to be confused of course with cosmetology – as Laurel will talk about. No, cosmology, for starters, is a type of world view. It is a person’s view on how the world works - the natural order of the universe, or the cosmos. So naturally, it is called cosmology. But Mark, what does this have to do with the Bible? Well, thanks for asking… let me tell you. In the Old Testament times, the writers of the Bible did not have as much scientific knowledge as we do now. They perceived the world as flat. Yes, that’s right – just like Columbus and his buddies. But that was just the staring point. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. The idea here is to paint a picture of the universe in terms of Hebrew thought since after all, it was the Hebrews who wrote everything the Bible is based around. In other words: what better way to start learning about the Bible than to understand how its writers saw the universe? This is where it all starts.
So the earth is the center of all things: according to the Hebrews. Now yea whatever... Galileo disproved that or something. Not the point. The Hebrews believed that they were the center of the universe. And so did the Catholic Church up until just a couple years ago. This idea more than anything else came from common sense (well, at least at the time). You know how it goes: the sun is moving, and I am not. So naturally the sun is moving around me. Again, I am not saying this is accurate, but this is the perspective from which the Bible was written.
So now we have the earth; it is the center of the universe. Ok. This is called geocentrism. So why is it important? Well, you will soon see how everything is else is literally based around this concept. The Hebrews believed that their earth was flat – not a sphere. There were edges (which explains numerous references to “the ends of the earth” in the Bible) and below the earth was this sort of sea thing. The flat earth was held up by giant pillars. (By the way, were you were to ask someone from India around this time, they would most likely tell you that these were not pillars, but giant elephants holding up the earth. Similar idea with different details.) Anyway, these pillars were based at the bottom of this large dome in which the flat earth sits. And at the bottom of this dome, we have this raging ocean sort of thing. This is where we will begin looking at the Bible – and we'll work from the ground up.
There are several references in the Torah (this is the Hebrew law which hopefully our Jewish friends know a lot about) pertaining to the “water under the earth.” What in the world would this be referring to if you didn't understand Hebrew cosmology? Well, it would seem that the Hebrews (and I guess God as well) were not particularly fond of these waters. First of all – it contained fish and other creatures which God and Moses made clear not to worship. But right next to the waters, or rather, above, was the underworld, or Sheol. This place could only be entered through the grave, and would kind of be like an equivalent to hell today – but not exactly, so don't get too caught up on that one. Sheol was the place where dead Israelites would go if they were to be cut off from their inheritance, and in their culture, that was a really big deal. So both Sheol and these waters were not very well-liked.
Moving up now, we find that there is flat earth on pillars (and continue remembering that their earth is flat – that's important later). These pillars were thought to be very strong (I mean, after all, they do hold up the entire world). But the earth itself was also very firm. In fact, as we will examine in a little bit, the earth is actually responsible for holding up the heavens. This explains the enormity of statements such as God shaking the foundations of the earth. When the foundations hold up not only earth, but the heavens as well, it takes a lot of strength to shake them. This strength contributed to the way Hebrews viewed their God: strong and powerful.
Continuing upward: earth, and then sky and then... what? According to the Hebrews you would have found yourself at the rim of the dome mentioned earlier. This dome was believed to contain all the items mentioned earlier and much more. Along this dome Hebrews believed there were tracks that the sun and the moon and the stars traveled along. They believed stars to be nothing more than small dots of light that could theoretically fall off the sky if they became dislodged. It was almost as if stars were glued to the ceiling of their universe – kind of like the glow-in-the-dark stars we can buy at the store today (see, if you get nothing else out of this speech you can learn that those glow-in-the-dark stars are similar to ancient near eastern cosmology). And the sky and the moon were thought of in similar ways.
But now, let's analyze this sky some more. Hebrews considered the sky more like a tent than an atmosphere. And in the Bible it is referred to as a “firmament.” The role of a firmament is to separate. In the Bible, it is said that there is a firmament between the waters. Today, that phrase makes no sense whatsoever. But outside this dome, the Hebrews believed that there was more water, and the sky's job was to keep the water from getting inside and drowning us. However, when God gets mad, he opens the floodgates on the top of the sky dome and drowns everyone (unless you're stuck on a boat with a ton of animals). This is also how rain and snow get in.
But wait – speaking of God, where is He in all this? Well, truth be told, the surrounding water does not just go on forever, but actually has its own dome. However, outside of that dome is God's territory – the Heaven of Heavens as it was called. Now many scholars believe that the Hebrews believed there to actually be seven domes. While I am not choosing to refute or qualify this claim, I am choosing to let it go so that I can get to the main idea instead. So maybe there were more domes, but for the sake of time – let's just stick with what we already have. God essentially just sort of hung out on top of all the domes observing earth from there – at least to start with. Now there are several passages in the Bible that refer to God seeing all the kingdoms of the world (and even suggesting simultaneously). Well, since the earth was flat, a high vantage point enabled God to see the entire world without having to rotate the globe.
Now, throughout the course of the Bible, the reader watches God descend slowly from the Heaven of Heavens and get closer and closer to us – the people. First He was dome God. Then during his early teen years, God went through an experimental phase and led the Israelites out of Egypt as a blazing pillar of fire – my small group leader prefers to refer to this as God's adolescent or pubescent stage. Then He appeared on Mount Sinai to meet with Moses – Mountain God. Then the arc of the covenant was made (Indiana Jones) and He was Box God. Then God decided to settle down for a bit and became Temple God. After the temple was destroyed, Jesus was born (merry Christmas!) and He was Jesus God. After Jesus was killed, He became the Holy Spirit – or as I like to say, People God. And all of these progressions started with Dome God over a flat earth.
By now, I hope you've gained an idea of what was going through the writer's head when he was writing the beginnings of the Bible. Obviously, this has not been an argument about whether or not God exists. That is an unwinnable and unprovable debate for another time. What I have tried to do, however, is show you a little background. It doesn't make sense to attack the Bible for contradicting itself or being disproven unless you understand how it was written. The best interpretation I've heard about what the Bible is is this: God moves, man experiences, man records. In man's recording of these events, he is obviously going to write from his own perspective. So how are we supposed to understand what the Bible is saying unless we understand where the author is coming from?
I hope that now when you discuss the Bible, whether you're tearing a high schooler's faith apart, reading it for wisdom, or you're forced to memorize the Torah, that it maybe makes a little more sense and that you are more knowledgeable than you were ten minutes ago. Hopefully, you will now know about what you're talking about before you claim to know everything about a book you've never actually opened.